Obama, Karzai agree to speed military transition

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday they have agreed to speed up

slightly

the schedule for moving Afghanistan's security forces into the

lead across the country, with U.S. troops shifting fully to

a support role. The leaders also said Obama agreed to place

battlefield detainees under the control of the Afghan government.

Obama, appearing in the East Room of the

White House with Karzai at his side, said accelerating the transition to

Afghan security

control this spring would set the stage for further withdrawal of

U.S. and other foreign forces, although he did not say how

quickly a U.S. drawdown would be carried out this year and next.

There are now 66,000 U.S. troops there.

"Starting this spring our troops will have a different mission: training, advising and assisting Afghan forces," Obama said.

"It will be a historic moment."

He added later that even in a backup role he could not rule out that U.S. troops could be drawn into combat. But he emphasized

that their main role would be support, such as training and advising.

Karzai said he was pleased by the agreement, in part because it means that by spring there will be no foreign troops in Afghan

villages.

Asked about the decision to accelerate the transition to Afghan security control — a shift that previously was scheduled to

happen this summer — Obama said it was not yet clear what it would mean for the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals this year.

He said that was "something that isn't yet fully determined" and is awaiting further internal deliberation.

Casting the move in a positive light, Obama

said plans remain on schedule to have Afghan forces fully responsible

for security

nationwide by the end of December 2014 — with no backup,

theoretically, by U.S. or other international forces — at which point,

"this war will come to a responsible end."

The capabilities of the Afghan army are "exceeding initial expectations," the two said in a joint statement released after

their private White House meeting and working lunch and in advance of a joint news conference. As a result, Obama said he

acceded to Karzai's desire to put Afghan forces in the combat lead across his country this spring, rather than wait until

summer.

In their statement the leaders said they discussed the possibility of a continued U.S. troop presence beyond December 2014,

when the U.S. and allied combat mission is to end. But they did not settle on any specifics.

The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have proposed

keeping 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops after 2014 to continuing pursuing

terrorists

and training Afghan security forces. But the White House, which

tends to favor lower troop levels than the generals do, says

Obama would be open to pulling all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan

at the end of 2014.

"We wouldn't rule out any option," Ben

Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said earlier this

week. "We're not

guided by the goal of a certain number of U.S. troops in the

country. We're guided by the objectives that the president set

— disrupt, dismantle, defeat al-Qaida."

Friday's meeting was the first between Obama and Karzai since November's U.S. presidential election. Heading into his second

term, Obama is shaking up his national security team, including key players who deal with Karzai and the war.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are both expected to leave their posts within

weeks. The president nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as the nation's top diplomat and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.,

to lead the Pentagon.

Both Kerry and Hagel are likely to favor a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.

After Karzai met Thursday with Clinton and Panetta, the Pentagon chief offered an upbeat assessment of the war's progress.

"After a long and difficult path, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing an Afghanistan, a sovereign

Afghanistan, that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta said.

The U.S.-led NATO coalition is aiming to turn all combat missions over to Afghan forces by the end of this year. The 66,000

U.S. forces still there are already turning over territory or handing off many combat missions to the Afghans.

Still, the war's endgame is punctuated with

uncertainty, beginning with doubts about whether the Afghan government

can build

legitimacy by credibly serving its population. Also in question is

whether Afghan security forces will be capable of holding

off the Taliban after international forces leave.

Panetta told a news conference that he and Karzai had laid the groundwork for the Afghan leader's White House meeting.

"We made very good progress on, you know, the kind of equipment that we would try to make available to them," to enable the

Afghans to not only secure their borders but also prevent a Taliban takeover, Panetta said.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint

Chiefs of Staff, told the same news conference that U.S. and Afghan

officials are

developing a common assessment of threats Afghanistan is likely to

face in the future. Conclusions from that study will help

determine the full range of Afghanistan's military requirements,

he said.

Karzai was greeted at the Pentagon by a

ceremonial honor guard, and at a photo-taking session in Panetta's

office, the Afghan

leader said he could assure the American people that his country

"will not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across

our borders" — an allusion to the al-Qaida leaders hiding in

Pakistan. It was from Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden and his

al-Qaida operatives plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the

United States.